Branded to Kill
Reviewed by James Slone
Seijun Suzuki’s “Branded to Kill” (1967) is a yakuza film for a more eccentric audience, or to put it another way, freaks, wasteoids, and stoners. So strange a film it was when it was finished, the studio Nikkatsu fired Suzuki on the spot; the script he was assigned had been reworked and finally discarded and the result must have been shocking to the studio heads. The film was and remains incomprehensible. Or as John Zorn has said in his essay for Criterion, “it is about as close to traditional yakuza pictures as Godard’s “Alphaville” is to science fiction.” That’s right. Incomprehensible. But like “Alphaville” it also happens to be seriously entertaining. Raunchy, violent, oddly existential, grotesque, and hilarious, “Branded to Kill” is pretty much the beginning and end of stoner cinema.
The story is a meandering affair with little overall structure. It begins clearly enough. Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) is the Number Three killer in the greater Tokyo area and a contender to the mysterious Number One’s throne. Assigned by his boss (Isao Tamagawa) to protect some poor sap from another assassin, he drives the schmuck around town- of course, the man goes completely insane and runs into a hail of bullets, finally getting pegged in the head. After his failure, Hanada is assigned a number of other tasks, one that includes driving a Volkswagen in chaotic circles on a beach and setting a man on fire with gasoline and watching him run away, screaming. Goro’s home life consists of kinky sex and physical violence with his generally naked housewife. Her betrayal and affair with his boss are foregone conclusions.
After his wife shoots him and leaves him to die in a burning house, Goro escapes to the relative safety of the mysterious and beautiful Misako (Annu Mari), a strange misandrist who collects dead birds, moths, and butterflies. Weakened from his injury and kept just well enough, Misako torments him with the promise of sex that usually results in “dead insect play” and murmurs sweet nothings about wanting to die. Before long, Goro realizes that the woman he’s in love with has made him a part of her collection of dead things and plans his escape. Of course this doesn’t prevent him from trying to rescue her later. By time he does find her, she’s bandaged from head to toe.
Soon, Number One comes into the picture, but his entrance isn’t precisely normal for the genre. Instead of attempting to kill Goro, he's content to play phone tag and ends up handcuffing himself to him. Soon they’re sleeping, eating, and pissing together. The two want to kill each other, but Number One would rather torment his opponent for a while, treating him condescendingly like a little brother before suddenly disappearing. The film’s third act, while hilarious, has a dire existential tone. Goro knows his time of reckoning is approaching, but unsure what to do about it he spends his days dreading the inevitable outcome of the duel. The numerical system is a nice touch; the hit men are simply ranked, and when one is killed they take a number.
Of course all this talk of plot says nothing about the film’s absurd tone. Goro is a strange protagonist, a kinky sexist addicted to rice, so much to the extent that he inhales the steam to get high. He falls in love with a suicidal taxidermist, who speaks in clipped sentences and flashes a bizarre smile when things get disgusting. His wife is a loudmouthed gossip who spends the film naked until Goro literally flushes her brains down a toilet. His assassinations are some of the most inventive on film. Who can forget it when Goro fires a bullet up a drain to plug someone in the eye? Jim Jarmusche certainly didn’t when he restaged it for “Ghostdog.”
Joe Shishido starred in a lot of half-assed yakuza pulp pictures, an eccentric actor who’d take just about any role with a gun and some sweaty broads. His chipmunk cheeks were actually surgically created; Shishido wanted a look that set him apart from his contemporaries. He was precisely the kind of guy you’d want on a picture like this. One wonders what he was thinking when he was asked to inhale steamed rice like a junky, or make love to a woman with a dead moth on her public bone. He must have been as delighted with the material as the studio was horrified by it. What a smirk he must have had.
“Branded to Kill” is like a montage of creative sequences. Everything from death, love, sex, car chases, and beyond are creatively skewered by Suzuki’s strange vision. There is no overt meaning in the film, because to introduce depth would be to betray Suzuki’s consistent vision of violence, which is that it serves no purpose at all, being little more than an empty exercise in gamesmanship. Like his other films, “Branded to Kill” is a showcase for futile struggles, killers wacking each other for little or no reason aside from passing the time. Absurd and hilarious, the film was virtually designed for late night drug abuse.